Bowing to anxiety among their constituents and pressure from Republicans, Senate Democratic leaders on Tuesday decided to drop plans to give President Obama money to close the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility for terrorism suspects.
The administration had asked Congress for $80 million to fulfill Obama’s promise to close the prison, which has become an international symbol of unpopular U.S. anti-terrorism policies. The money was to be included in a $91-billion bill funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Senate had been expected to approve the $80 million as long as the Obama administration explained clearly what it would do with Guantanamo’s 240 remaining inmates. But as the bill came up for debate Tuesday, some Democrats balked amid Republican efforts to highlight what they said were dangers in bringing the inmates to U.S. prisons and communities.
The Senate is expected to vote today on an amendment to strip the $80 million from the war-funding bill and to indefinitely ban the transfer of Guantanamo Bay inmates to the United States and its territories. The amendment is expected to pass easily.
Senate Democratic leaders concluded that it made little sense to expose their members to the political risk of approving the money until Obama decided what to do about relocating the inmates.
“We were defending the unknown,” Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters. “We were being asked to defend a plan that hasn’t been announced.”
The White House said that Obama would lay out part of his plan in a speech Thursday, as well as address how long the closure of the Guantanamo facility might take.
“We’re going to work with Congress on a timeline that makes sense for us and for them,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday. The Senate ban on transferring inmates to the United States could be eased in later legislation.
Obama’s moves to close the facility began during his first week in office, when he signed an executive order to close the Guantanamo Bay camp within a year.
The Senate action marked a rare victory for congressional Republicans, who oppose closing the facility and have mounted a concerted campaign to throw Democrats on the defensive.
“I’m pleased the majority has recognized that the president’s policy of putting an arbitrary deadline on the closing of Guantanamo is a mistake,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “But this issue is not totally behind us.”
The House version of the war-funding legislation also denied Obama money to close the prison. It said detainees could be brought to the U.S. only after Obama produced a plan for their transfer.
In a briefing with reporters, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said Tuesday that he did not believe the one-year timeline for closing Guantanamo was “in jeopardy.”
“As far as I can tell, everything remains on track for action to be taken, with regards to the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility,” Morrell said.